A Conceptual Analysis of Prostitution

by Kevin Schneider, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology


There are many moral approaches to understanding why prostitution occurs, but not many objective analytic ones.  Prostitution has been said to be the world’s oldest profession (Snell, 1994), so it’s safe to say that simply keeping it illegal will not make it stop.  At the same time, there are plenty of first world countries, like Germany, that have legalized prostitution and have not fallen apart.


We construct our definitions of “right” and “wrong” through verbal behavior.  This helps us develop rules and laws to govern our societies (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2012).  Laws are mainly created in order to avoid an aversive outcome.  Most laws also have religious origins, both in history and today (Wikipedia, 2011).  Societies that make prostitution illegal are doing so because such legislation could be said to avoid constructed aversives like “sinning” and “hell” as well as physical aversives like sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), having unplanned children, etc.


For the laws that are created analytically and not through definitions of “right” and “wrong,” illegalizing prostitution makes sense because sex is arguably the most preferred unconditioned reinforcer among the majority of people.  Therefore, some believe if sex were offered as simply as paying for it down the street, like buying food from a restaurant, then too much money would be “wasted” since the response effort is relatively low compared to current consequences of paying for sex, which could be getting arrested and/or fined.  The fear some have is that men would start to parallel drug addicts and spend all of their money on prostitution, leading to more aversive consequences like families splitting apart, women resembling objects that could be bought and sold, etc.  As already mentioned, sex is a highly salient unconditioned reinforcer, so one explanation of why there is still a plethora of customers, even though it is illegal, is because a state of deprivation can produce a strong establishing operation.


Other reasons to purchase time with a sex worker include social reinforcement; for example, clients may ask to talk about marital issues they may be having.  If an individual is not in a romantic relationship, they may find it easier to pay to have sexual relations instead of dating someone traditionally (Moore, Davidson, & Fisher, 2010).  Purchasing sex currently has a lower response effort compared to finding someone to go out with you, dating, then having sex, then dealing with the continuing relationship afterward.  In addition, it would be quite difficult to replace this behavior of sexual relations, as research shows it can be difficult to replace any behavior that is automatically reinforced, because you would have to pinpoint the actual reinforcing stimulus and then replace the behavior with another behavior that serves the same function and also has a lower response effort.


People often project their own views onto others and do not realize that some sex workers are in the industry for the same reason most jobs are chosen; there is a presumed monetary reinforcement which is highly preferred since it is a generalized conditioned reinforcer (GCR).  There could also be barriers finding another job, including a lack of other job skills.  It can also be difficult to explain the gap in your resume.


Current policies imply that being a sex worker is a free choice, a construct that, behaviorally, does not exist.  This is because behavior is maintained by consequences, not caused; meaning that all of our decisions that we make are based on our individual learning histories of punishment and reinforcement.  The current way of “stopping prostitution” by keeping it illegal is obviously not working since over the last 30 years, prostitution has skyrocketed (Moore, Davidson, & Fisher, 2010).


In fact, it can be argued that “prostitution” happens in many typical romantic relationships, where there are actions or tangibles that can be arguably “exchanged” between partners for the intentional purpose of engaging in the act of sex afterword.  This could be a contingency set up where one partner says, “Do the dishes, then we can have sex” or one partner buys the other one an expensive gift in hopes to engage in sexual activity.  So in reality, prostitution as it is defined is happening more often than thought.


When we look at other countries’ models of prostitution where it is legal, like Germany and Amsterdam, we see that there are still families there, women still working typical jobs, and life is going on just as in other countries where prostitution is illegal.  Currently, our society does not contact any reinforcement/monetary profit from prostitution.  Society pays for the policing of red light districts, time taken to arrest, book, and feed someone while they are in jail.  Ticketing does not begin to meet the amount of money/GCR that could be contacted through taxing prostitution as a legitimate business.

If prostitution were legalized in America, it could lessen the stigma of paying for sex for those who do not know how else to engage in it.  Prostitution could be regulated and taxed, which could reduce the amount of drugs and trafficking of children into the industry because it would be monitored as any other legitimate business.  In addition, sexually transmitted diseases could dramatically decease if the sex workers are regularly tested.


Behaviorally speaking, either we should make data-based decisions to determine an effective intervention to stop prostitution, or accept that prostitution happens, while at the same time developing interventions and devoting resources to stop other crimes within prostitution, such as human trafficking.



Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The

process and practice of mindful change. (2 ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Moore, N. B., Davidson, J. K., & Fisher, T. D. (2010). Speaking of sexuality, interdisciplinary

readings. (3rd ed. ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Roe-Sepowitz, D. E. (2012). Juvenille entry into prostitution: the role of emotional

abuse. Violence Against Women18(5), 562-579.

Snell, J. G. (1994). Mandatory HIV testing and prostitution: The world’s oldest profession and the

world’s newest deadly disease. The Hastings Law Journal45(6), 1565-1592.

Wikipedia. (2011). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law







This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2013 STEP SIG Newsletter.

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